How to embrace your inner child and find more joy

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
How to embrace your inner child

Author’s Note: This post was originally published on November 6, 2014. It has been updated and reposted.

I’ve been having this recurring dream, and it’s just about as obvious as they come. I’m taking care of a small kitten—sometimes, it’s a puppy—and all of a sudden I realize I haven’t given it any food. In a panic, I try to put the kitten in a bag while I run to the store so I don’t have to leave it alone.

When your inner child shows up in the middle of the night demanding to be fed, is it always with such a guilt trip?

Adult life asks so much of us, it can be easy to forget there is a childlike essence in there too. The number of moments requiring self-control seems to grow with each passing year. And while I generally think of myself as a playful, fun-loving person, I notice that when I take breaks from writing, drawing, or gardening, that the opportunities for that childlike energy to express itself are fewer. I realize now that creative work is the place where impulses to play and to imagine run free for me. When I feel my childlike essence start to flicker, it’s a signal to give myself space to explore and create.

Because it’s not enough to acknowledge your inner child — you have to learn to nurture and embrace it. For those of us who had difficult childhoods, this can be a tricky thing to do. Looking backwards can raise childhood fears and wounds. But by mining your memories for joy instead of pain, you may find that you’re healing your inner child in the process.

How to embrace your inner child

If, like mine, yours is waking you up in the middle of the night, here are ten ideas to reconnect with your inner child.

Do a happy dance

The beauty of a happy dance is that it’s deliberately not a “good” dance. Don’t overthink it, don’t do it in front of the mirror. (Close your eyes if you have to!) Do get someone else to do it with you, as studies show joy has significantly more impact when shared.

Maybe you have a song you always use to get the good vibes going. Maybe there’s an occasion (my husband and I happy dance when we get good news!) or a specific move that always makes you smile. The key is a moment of uninhibited self-expression — something that makes your inner child feel safe to come out and play.

Make a joylist

It’s like a to-do list, but better! Only fun things allowed here. Things like “Make pancakes” and “Go to the movies” and “Run around in the park.”

This can be a challenging exercise for those of us who were trained to filter everything through a lens of productivity. If this is you, here are some categories that might help you kickstart your joylist planning: something a visitor to your town might do, things that always make you laugh, an activity you turn to when your mental health needs a boost.

Set a timer (and ignore it)

Schedule a pocket of time free from responsibility. Set your timer (it doesn’t matter if it’s 10 minutes or an hour!) and walk away from your phone, watch, alarm clock, anything that might remind you time is ticking. The goal here is to let go of “busy” — to reject that adult notion that there is never enough time. In this moment, there’s nothing but time! And you can do whatever you want in it!

When you were a kid, you painted or collected seashells or climbed trees for hours without noticing the time going by. What can you do to access that feeling of freedom and abundance now?

Look at large-scale art

Remember how big everything looked when you were little? Large objects, like these balloon-shaped sculptures by Katharina Grosse, trigger a perspective shift that reminds you of what it was like to be small. Even better if the art is full of color and pattern. The swirls on the balloons remind me of the bouncy balls I used to get from the vending machines at the grocery store as a kid.

Go on an adventure

I was a kid that went on a lot of nature walks. I used to come home with all kinds of mundane treasures foraged from the woods: pinecones, oddly shaped stones, red fall leaves, feathers. This summer I discovered trail running and it feels like my grown-up equivalent. I’m not much of a runner but there’s something so fun about being in the woods and jumping over rocks and roots, I never seem to notice I’m actually running.

If running isn’t your thing, maybe try a hike. Even simpler, step outside your regular routine to take tiny adventures. Maybe it’s a new park for playtime, a different route to work, or a shift in scenery when you’re walking the dog.

Play with your kids’ toys

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten completely absorbed in Graham’s magnatiles. At the start, I play the part of patient assistant, handing him pieces or helping him figure out which shape goes where. Fast forward ten minutes and he’s moved on to something new and I’m still sitting there fully distracted by my own creation.

Depending on your kid, this might be something you try after they go to bed. Or, if you don’t have little ones in your house, try playing with something you loved as a kid. Maybe it’s blocks or Lego, a Lite Brite or a set of bright, waxy crayons. Wander into the toy aisle and see what you come away with.

Write a letter

Choose someone who helped you find joy as a child. Maybe it was a caretaker, a teacher, or a friend. Maybe it’s someone you never met — an author, artist, or even a fictional character. Thank them for whatever gift they gave your younger self. In the process, you may find that you’ve uncovered a forgotten joy that could help you connect with your inner child.

My grandmother is no longer with me, but to her I’d write: “I’ll never forget those trips to the art store where you let me choose anything I wanted to bring home and learn. Or how you patiently sat with me for as long as it took to figure it out.” My love of crafting began on these trips with my grandmother. I feel close to her and to my inner child any time my hands are making something. Which brings me to my next tip…

Make something (just for fun)

The most important thing about inner child work? That it’s not work! Spend an afternoon creating something without mind for purpose, function, or side-hustle.

When you were a kid you created things every day just for the fun of it. But as an adult many passion projects become chores. By doing something you love that isn’t worth money, you’re more likely to be learning or exploring something.

Revisit something you loved as a child

What was your favorite movie as a child? Music album? Chapter book? Think about the media that made you feel good and revisit it. That might mean a tv marathon or digging out the first CD you ever owned. But it doesn’t have to be that literal. Maybe thinking about these experiences opens up a new avenue for staying connected to that nostalgia.

You could cook up a dish from one of your favorite stories or search the internet for a poster from your first concert to hang on your wall. Think about this one as a love letter to your inner child — a way of connecting to that feeling of delight and discovery.

Try something you’ve wanted to do forever

When we’re kids, we learn things every day. With so many skills just around the corner, there’s less trepidation behind trying something new. As we age, it’s a different story.

How many times have you put off starting a new hobby? A new recipe? A new… anything? Take this as an invitation to choose one thing you’ve wanted to do forever and just do it! Remember how many times you tried to ride a bike / dive into the deep end / get that perfect four-square spin until you learned how to do it? You’ve got this.

How you know when your inner child needs attention? What do you do to get back in touch with it?

If you need a little help, here are 50 ways to find more joy every day. It’s free!

How to embrace your inner child
huge painted spheres
Installation by Katharina Grosse

Images: Installation by Katharina Grosse
Via: Total Inspiration

September 13th, 2023


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    Discussion (6 Comments)

  1. Sherry Crowson on November 9, 2014

    Oh, that inner child! Sometimes she’s so . . . hungry! I know when she needs food, when I stop doing the things that have always given me pleasure, like the morning note, or beading, or trying something new. She needs feeding when I start being afraid, when I start watching mindless TV shows, when I haven’t done anything that makes me smile for days, when anything that is out of the routine of necessity just seems too hard. Then I have to do something to feed her . . . read a favorite book, sit in the sun, go to someplace that has art, or does art, drive to some place I have never been before, even if it is only a couple of miles away, get a jar of bubbles. blow on the wand, and watch them float away. I think the therapeutic benefits of bubbles are woefully underestimated! Sometimes a lot of bright colors, like those ball sculptures, will do it, or the big kites they fly down by the bay, or the bright sails on the boards they ride on our baby waves. Sometimes just reading something fun and inspirational like this blog really helps!

    1. Ingrid on November 11, 2014

      Sherry, what is the morning note? Is that like morning pages? I’ve been hearing about this but haven’t tried it.

      You are so right about mindless TV! I got rid of cable four years ago and it changed my life – but we still have AppleTV and Netflix. It raises the barrier to vegging out somewhat, but still sometimes sucks me in :/

  2. Sherry Crowson on November 11, 2014

    I write a morning note to friends and family, about 20 people. It just talks about what is going on in my back yard, and includes a poem I sometimes talk about. I’ve been doing it since 2009 and most times I love doing it, it makes me notice the beauty that is right here in front of me. It makes me notice things I would not have noticed otherwise. Occasionally, like for the past couple of weeks, I just stop doing it for a week or two. Sometimes I can’t find one more new positive poem, poems often seem be more about the negative side, sometimes I am just not in a good place and find it hard to collect my thoughts or take the time to actually sit down and spend the time to do it. I miss it when I don’t and usually after a week or two, I go back to doing it. I miss staying in touch too much.

    The morning pages are different; they are a practice from The Artist Way by Julia Cameron. Three pages a day soon as you get up before you do anything else, write about anything. You think it’s not working a lot of the time but about the second page in, something turns over in your mind and you begin to write about things that come from some place you don’t usually get to. I find them helpful and have notebooks full of pages I’ve written. The morning note is different because it’s meant to be shared. The morning pages are . . . more private, not something you may want to share, though sometimes they can be about things you don’t mind sharing, but sometimes they are not. I take spells with the morning pages, sometimes I seem to need them a lot, sometimes I go months without practicing.

    You would like something else from The Artist Way . . the weekly play date! Once a week you are encouraged to go and have fun. Something planned or something spontaneous, something little like crayons or big like a class, something just for you. When I was doing this with a group, it was kind of sad that the ladies in the group had more trouble with fun once a week than writing three pages a day. They just couldn’t seem to let go or make time even once a week for something that was not . . . practical! It got easier I think over time but never really came to be something they did with all the abandon of a child.

    Hmm . . . I did not mean to write so much . . . I guess I am missing the morning writing !

    1. Ingrid on November 12, 2014

      Sherry, thanks for explaining the morning note. What a lovely idea! I also love the idea of a weekly play date. I think there is something to formalizing a ritual like that that makes it really happen in your life. For awhile I was trying to keep an “explore” time on my calendar – 2-5 on Fridays. The idea was not to schedule meetings in there, but to use the time to make sure I was digging into interesting patterns I was seeing or just getting inspired so that I could share that inspiration with others. (Kind of a “put your own mask on first” sort of thing.) But I found that leaving 3 hours was too long and I often ended up scheduling over top of it. I think a smaller period of time that you really hold and assign to play makes it more purposeful.

      Interesting that some people you knew had a barrier to the play date idea. It’s got me thinking about what might help overcome those reservations… A question for a future post, perhaps!

  3. Sherry Crowson on November 13, 2014

    I think the idea of a play date was something a little more spontaneous, scheduling it seems kind of . . . counter to the idea of it. Though if you make time regularly for something in your life it seems to get done more often. So I guess this comes under the heading of whatever works for you . I never have trouble playing . . . I have trouble NOT playing and am more likely to schedule work. I have a set routine I do I call the morning work that I try to get done before noon, but it doesn’t always work out but because it’s a daily thing, scheduled and all, it works more times than not. I am glad you are back writing this blog, even at the expense of your book. You never know when doing something like this how many lives you touch, ones that don’t take the time to write you, ones that take what you have to give and give it to others. The purpose of a book is to communicate something to the reader, and you do fine communicating lots of creative ideas to lots of readers. Perhaps they make up a whole, and feed each other, so that one does not necessarily lose out to the other !

    1. Ingrid on November 18, 2014

      I’m late to respond, but you make a good point about the scheduling! I’m short on unstructured time these days, but maybe it would work for me to schedule a time to play and then let inspiration lead me where it does.

      And thank you so much for the encouragement about the blog – it means so much to me. I do hope that even those who don’t have time to write do find something inspiring or useful here. Fortunately, I don’t think the blog is taking away from the book any longer. I think the two are complementary in a way they haven’t been in a long time!


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